From late April to early May, hundreds of thousands of shorebirds stop to rest and feed on the vast mudflats in Grays Harbor. After a brief stay, the birds move north along the coast of British Columbia and reach the Copper River Delta in southeast Alaska. Then it's on to their breeding grounds where long days and abundant food resources provide an ideal place to nest and raise their young.
About two dozen species of shorebirds use the Refuge during spring and fall. Most shorebirds can be identified by where they forage on the mudflat and the feeding methods they use. Coloration and physical shape also help you identify the species.
Western sandpipers are the most abundant shorebird seen during spring migration. Their black legs, longish, slightly drooping bill and rufous back and head markings distinguish the Western from other sandpipers. They feed on the mudflats and along the water's edge constantly walking and probing for tiny clams, worms and sand fleas. They winter along the coast from California to Peru.
This is the world's smallest shorebird, weighing only 0.7 ounces. Compared to the Western Sandpiper, the Least Sandpiper has an overall darker appearance and a brown breast. Its yellow legs can sometimes help in identifying this bird. Least sandpipers forage at the upper edges of mudflats and in the low marsh vegetation. They feed by picking and probing in dry and wet mud for small invertebrates. least sandpipers migrate in small numbers and breed from Northern British Columbia to Alaska.
The two dowitcher species, Short-billed and Long-billed, are difficult to tell apart even for the experts. They feed in slightly deeper water using an up and down head motion like a sewing machine. Dowitchers on the west coast winter from California to Peru. In early March, they begin migrating northward in small groups. During the flight north, they fly 2,500 miles at a time without stopping to rest and feed.
These small plovers have a very short black bill and a conspicuous black breast band. They stand upright and use their large eyes to see prey move, they then run to pluck the prey up, stop, and begin looking for prey again. In this way they hunt for mollusks, crustaceans and marine worms. They typically winter in South America and the southern U.S.
In spring, a conspicuous black belly patch distinguishes this bird. Using swift probing movements, they feed near the water's edge for tiny clams, worms, and shrimp-like animals. Dunlins winter in the warm climates of the Northern Hemisphere and are one of the few shorebirds that winter in Grays Harbor.
In breeding season this large, plump plover has distinct black and white plumage. They use their large eyes to search for food close to the waters edge, where they feed on earthworms, grubs, beetles and large marine worms. Black-bellied plovers spend the winter in grasslands and beaches along the coast from British Columbia to Chile. Large numbers winter in Grays Harbor.
Page Photo Credits Female Harrier, ©Dennis Ellison, Western Sandpiper, ©Jan Weiser, Least Sandpiper, Jesse Barham (USFWS), Dowitcher, ©Jan Weiser, Semipalmated Plover, ©Jan Weiser, Dunlin feeding, ©Jan Weiser, Black-bellied Plover, ©Jan Weiser
Last Updated: Aug 22, 2012